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America finds there is more to the world than China

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At the time of writing, the US has no ambassador in Egypt. A chargé d’affaires is doing the job while the nominee for the permanent role enters her seventh month in the Surrealist theatre production that it pleases Washingtonians to call the Senate confirmation process. She is in good company. There is a similar hold-up with the American ambassadorships in Kuwait, Oman and (though there is pressure to fill the spot soon) Israel.

The US has things to worry about outside the Middle East, of course, such as the ungoverned spaces in or surrounding the Sahel. But it has no permanent ambassador in Nigeria or Djibouti either. Perhaps the nation is distracted with the politics of its own hemisphere, what with the frequent arrival of migrants from Latin America at the southern border. But Colombia, a large source of that traffic, has no US ambassador. Peru? No. Guatemala? No.

Contrast this with the Indo-Pacific. There, the US is, and has been for a while, well staffed. Malaysia is one of the few regional powers where there isn’t a permanent ambassador. In that zone of competition between America and China, Washington doesn’t dither. The main economic and military challenger to the US is also its all-consuming focus.

This monomania is untenable, as events in the Middle East are proving. Having taken China too lightly for decades, America’s elites have overcorrected in recent years. There has been a mental “pivot to Asia”. It made all the sense in the world at the time. But it was conceived when most other regions were, if not peaceful, then free of acute crisis. There is now a land war in Europe, the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence since the early years of this century and chaos just south of the Sahara that France, the old colonial power, has judged is beyond its military capacity to fix.

Throw in the on-off crisis at the border with Mexico, which the Covid-19 pandemic stemmed, and it is going to be much harder than it seemed as recently as 2021 for America to tear its attention from the rest of the world to China.

Perhaps some perspective was overdue. The US and China together account for some 40 per cent of the world’s economic output. For comparison, this is about as much as America alone could claim in the middle of the last century. The combined population of the two countries is about 1.7bn, in a planet of more than 8bn. Without question, this is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, but it is not the world. It was just possible to believe so at the turn of this decade, when non-Chinese claims on US intellectual and military bandwidth receded.

In those years, America even allowed the China issue to distort relations with third countries. Iran was de-emphasised, in part to free up diplomatic energy for the Indo-Pacific. The US has managed to get into a tiff with the EU over industrial protectionism when the ultimate aim was to hobble China. This focus on one competitor wasn’t rash. It was a grown-up attempt to set priorities, to husband America’s immense but finite resources. But the atrocities of October 7 in Israel, like the invasion of Ukraine, shows that the world won’t leave the US alone to get on with its “real” project.

The US is going through the most awkward phase in the life cycle of an empire. Its relative power in the world is somewhat down from its all-time peak, but its burdens aren’t. It must prioritise, and at the same daren’t. Had the US not sent aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean after the Hamas attack on Israel, or armed Ukraine, there would now be talk of “isolationism” or a “reluctant superpower”. Enemies might be tempted to test its will elsewhere.

The one consolation is that other countries have been here before. If we judge it on territorial extent, Britain’s empire reached its maximum stature 100 autumns ago. Long before that, however, the nation had started to lose its industrial advantage to Germany, Japan and the US. On paper, its portfolio of responsibilities was consistent, even expanding, while its underlying wherewithal went the other way. The US will need the subtlest statecraft to manage its own version of this late-imperial predicament.

De-prioritising China isn’t an option. Yes, there have been overtures from each side to the other this year, and Joe Biden might meet Xi Jinping at a summit in San Francisco next month. But the tension in interests and values is unignorable. In the end, then, America is left with the only foreign policy that is ever viable for a great power, which is the pivot to everywhere.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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